March 15, 2007

The Language of Stargate

Arnold's post on The Language of First Contact reminded me of something that has been bugging me for a long time. When I first heard about the forthcoming movie Stargate I was thrilled. I've been fascinated by Ancient Egypt since I was a little boy. In fact, the first language that I studied in a serious way, when I was ten, was Middle Egyptian, from Sir Alan Gardiner's classic Egyptian Grammar. I actually read the book before the movie came out. Here, I thought, would be a movie that not only had the usual ingredients of an enjoyable adventure movie: exotic locations, neat costumes, a suitable amount of violence, scantily clad beautiful women, etc., but involved decipherment and a modified version of the Egyptian language.

Of course I was disappointed. The movie did have some of the expected ingredients, but it did not have nearly the focus on language that I had hoped for. The subsequent television series departed even more from the Egyptian theme. However, the movie did actually use a bit of Egyptian, but in a way that puzzles me.

The story is that archaeologists have discovered in Egypt a disused portal to a sort of intergalactic subway system. Through a combination of reverse engineering and decipherment of the associated inscriptions, they learn how to use it, and eventually send a team of commandos and scientists, including Dr. Daniel Jackson, a linguist and expert in decipherment, through the portal to a distant planet. This planet turns out, not surprisingly given all the hints of an Egyptian context, to have a civilization similar to that of Ancient Egypt.

Soon after the team arrives on the planet, they climb up over a sand dune and are met by a bunch of the inhabitants, who prostrate themselves and cry out [natʃuru]. I understood this immediately, as would, I think, anyone who has ever learned Egyptian. One of the first and most common words that one learns is nt̠r [ntʃr] "god". (Egyptian writing did not represent most of the vowels.) The masculine plural is formed by adding [u]. That the people were crying out "gods!" seemed pretty obvious to me. Yet Daniel Jackson doesn't understand this at first. It seems very odd that the makers of the film would set up such an obviously Egyptian context, characterise a character as a genius at linguistics and decipherment, use a word that is just what we would expect in a relative of Egyptian, and then have that character fail to understand it.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 15, 2007 01:51 PM